Getting Back to Nature at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

Speakers highlighted environmental issues and their intersection with black lives, an apt theme in a political atmosphere where climate change, environmental injustice. and the dismantling of the national park system have made headlines.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia held its sixth annual symposium on Saturday, April 21. The free event was produced in collaboration with the National Park Service and Independence National Historical Park. Speakers highlighted environmental issues and their intersection with black lives, an apt theme in a political atmosphere where climate change, environmental injustice, and the dismantling of the national park system have recently made news headlines.

Jeffrey Richardson delivered the first keynote address for the “Get Involved” panel. Richardson is a professor at the University of Delaware where he lectures on race and the environment, and also the founder of Imani Energy, a solar energy company that trains and employs people from low-income neighborhoods. Speaking on environmental racism, Richardson implored the audience to reconsider the idea equity in the placement of polluting industries and other undesirable sites traditionally forced onto the same neighborhoods Imani seeks out for advancement. Rather than redistribute the sites, he advocated eliminating them entirely with the battle cry of, “don’t poison people equally – stop poisoning people, period.”

Richardson invoked recent headlines including Nestle’s controversial deal in Michigan to bottle water just a few hours away from Flint, the majority-black city where residents must rely on bottled water due to an as of yet unresolved lead contamination problem. The lead entered the water supply in 2014 when the city switched from sourcing water from Detroit to the corrosive Flint River, known to be contaminated with the heavy metal neurotoxin, without employing anti-corrosive measures. “In Flint,” he said, “they don’t trust their officials – and they shouldn’t.” Richardson’s advice to the audience was to make small but significant changes in their everyday lives to break down the union of government and industry. Creating spaces, visiting parks, reducing consumption, and developing urban farms to provide locally sourced fresh food.

Also on the “Get Involved” panel was Denise Dennis, a descendent of the Dennis family, a free black family who founded a farm in Western Pennsylvania in 1793. The farm is still owned by the Dennis family, though it has not been actively farmed since 1918; Denise Dennis is now the President and CEO of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust. Recent research into the farm, facilitated by meticulous notes kept by the first generation of family farmers as proof of debts paid and protection from hostile neighbors and government agents, showed that Dennis Farm was a major producer of maple sugar. Maple sugar was promoted by abolitionists in the Antebellum era as an alternative to slave-grown cane sugar. So isolated it only received a street number in 2014 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the farm provides a key educational opportunity for students and youth. In addition to the Black history of the site, it has one of the few remaining intact wetlands, which the Trust intends to preserve in perpetuity.

Jamie Gaulthier of the Fairmount Park Conservancy urged the audience to get involved in Philadelphia’s park system, and to utilize the recent improvements the conservancy and other organizations have made to activate green spaces in the city. She spoke of the Centennial Commons, currently under construction, which will break down the barrier between the historic and majority-African American Parkside neighborhood, primarily constructed in advance of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, and its namesake by creating a “park within a park.” Gina Gilliam of the Independence National Historical Park was the final panelist. She spoke of cultivating childhood connections to nature by encouraging children to take advantage of the Philadelphia park system; her own youth was spent in Cobbs Creek, which fostered her later careers in biology and zoology. 

A surprise mid-day performance by Loretta Maps Bolt, a self-described technoshaman, was a highlight of the day for many audience members. Bolt posed the question, “if the Earth could talk, how would it communicate?” Using small receivers connected to plants, she produces what she refers to as “biotunes,” music generated from the electrical currents that run naturally through the plants. Bolt’s background is in biodynamic farming and environmental law. Her inspiration for the project was Cleve Backster, a CIA interrogation specialist who experimented with connecting plants to polygraph machines. A piece of music created by recording a fig tree from Bartram’s Garden was played for the audience. Bolt expressed interest in creating music from crops like flax and hemp, then creating a garments from textiles generated by the plants and implanting a device to allow consumers to hear the plants.

The second panel of the day centered on the theme “Get Outside,” promoting conventional and unconventional uses of outdoor space geared towards the Black community. Deanna Mitchell, newly-appointed Superintendent of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, drew connections to the African Americans who helped preserve our natural lands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries like Captain Charles Young of the famed Buffalo Soldiers who protected Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, and asked the audience why, in 2018, that same demographic has the lowest outdoor participation rate in the United States. She spoke of Harriet Tubman as the archetypical “outdoors woman,” traumatized by a youth as a domestic slave, which created a lifelong distaste for domestic work.

Kamau Sadiki of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers dedicated part of his program to the work that organization has done in underwater archaeology, particularly of the 2018 excavation of a wreck thought to be the Clotilda, the last ship to illegally bring slaves from the Kingdom of Dahomey to Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1860.  While that wreck proved not to be the Clotilda, he stressed other more successful discoveries like the 2015 discovery of the São José Paquete Africa, a Portuguese slave ship that sank in 1794 en route from Mozambique to Brazil, found outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Sadiki became emotional as he discussed the ritual held by divers from Mozambique to scatter soil from their homeland above the wreck site, symbolically bringing their countrymen home after nearly two hundred and twenty years. Artifacts from the São Jose are currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Sadiki also discussed the Scuba association’s youth outreach program, which trains Black youth in scuba technique and sends them on dive excursions around the world at no cost. The trips are partially funded by donors and partially funded by memberships in the adult organization. Youth divers help to document the 1200 known wrecks remaining to be explored.

Becton Tours and Historical Services’ founder Joseph Becton led a presentation on “Afro Outdoorsmen and Southeastern Pennsylvania” connecting the modern audience to the legacy of Black outdoorsmen and protest. Becton cited the huge amount of Black history at Hopewell Furnace in Berks County. Builder Mark Bird was the largest slave owner in the county in 1780, holding eighteen people including four children in captivity. The site later played an important role in the Underground Railroad. Becton concluded his presentation with a plea for active involvement in the preservation of Black history: “go to the graveyards,” he urged the audience. “Your stories are there.” Becton himself had just arrived from a cemetery gathering, and delivered his animated presentation, which proved to be a crowd favorite, dressed in full Union Army regalia. 

The program manager at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, Mark Thorne, discussed the preservation of that site and its interpretation. The farm recently rehabilitated the large stone barn, the only known example of its kind in Maryland, to broaden the interpretation of history at the site. While previously the story of the Quaker owners was told, the new exhibits at the barn expand the story to the slaves owned by those very Quakers. This is particularly important, as Quaker history of the Antebellum is dominated by the narrative of the faith’s commitment to abolitionism; little is said of the Quakers who actively participated in the sale and exploitation of human chattel. William Palmer, a Quaker who built the barn in 1832, owned thirteen slaves on the property. Woodlawn Manor later became a hub for the Underground Railroad. 

The final presentation of the day was delivered by Noel Lopez, Pathways Cultural Anthropologist for the National Park Service, who investigated fishing in the Potomac. When exploring why people continued to fish the river despite advisories against it, Lopez found a number of reasons. Subsistence fishing played a large role, but so did tradition and family history, recreation, and community. 

The program, scheduled to end at 3:30, actually ran until after 4 pm. The high degree of audience participation in discussions and question and answer sessions drove the organizers to extend the conversation. Discussion delved into other topics of race and environmentalism, including the power Black celebrities have to promote environmental issues – such as Beyoncé promoting vegan diets – and gentrification in Philadelphia. Audience members were satisfied by the meetings, based on an informal survey, and felt they had learned a great deal of information both on history and ways to become more involved in the natural world.